Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 1 April 2010

Lonely City


A vibrant city . . . but Edinburgh is the loneliest place in Britain to live – Edinburgh Evening News, 3rd December 2008

A while ago I posted an article It all boils down to brown sauce in which I talk about the shifting relationship between Glaswegians (residents of Glasgow, Scotland’s second city) and Edinburghers (residents of Edinburgh, the capital city of Scotland). There has been squabbling between the two cities for centuries. I don’t particularly like Edinburgh but it’s nothing to do with some ancient rivalry. It’s because I have a few unhappy memories associated with the city but the same goes for Aberdeen; I really hated my time spent in Aberdeen. I only wrote one poem during the six months I spent there:


It's strange
how such a cold and formidable thing
reminds me of you,
its icy breakers failing
on a beach we've never walked on
nor likely ever will.

And yet perhaps that is it.
That after all these miles of travelling
defeat should come
at the final moment.

Aberdeen, 28 February 1995

For the record I’m pretty indifferent to Dundee and Stirling and as I’ve never been to Inverness I couldn’t say yea or nay.

This is a rare poem for me. Places don’t tend to inspire me. But it’s really not the place as much as the experiences associated with that place. It just so happens I was in Aberdeen at a bad time in my life. It could just as easily have been anywhere.

I’ve nothing against the people in any of these cities, the Aberdonians I met were all friendly enough once I got to know them and I know a few decent Edinburghers, so when Claire Askew asked me if I’d like to contribute a poem to their this collection I was happy to do so. (She lives in Edinburgh but she’s actually a Yorkshire lass.) Unusually for me I wrote something specifically for her. I don’t generally write to order; I tend never to be very happy with the results. This time though I was pleased enough with my efforts to submit the piece, ‘Lonely City’, which was duly accepted along with 99 other poems. You can see all 100 here. Mine is No. 2 purely because I submitted my piece promptly.

this collection

So, what's this collection about? I'll let Claire explain:

this collection is a collaboration between Edinburgh writers and Edinburgh filmmakers, which aims to create a detailed picture of day-to-day life in the city, with all its foibles and issues, through the media of poetry and film.

Basically, we want to gather 100 poems by Edinburgh writers, each poem no more than 100 words long. Once we’ve done this, we’ll pass them on to a carefully chosen group of young filmmakers who will get to work on creating 100 short films to accompany the poems. We then intend to showcase the poems and the films together, both online and at events across the city throughout Spring and Summer 2009.

As it happens they weren’t able to get everything organised Lewis Bennett in time and so 2009 passed and I thought that was that. Until I got an e-mail from Lewis Bennett, a Canadian filmmaker who happened to be in Edinburgh at the time. He still wanted to do ‘Lonely City’ and so over the next few months we exchanged e-mails discussing how the project could be filmed and, after much toing and froing the film was completed in time for the initial preview of this collection 2010 which took place at the McEwan Hall on 25th and 25th March.

Here are Lewis’s ‘behind the scenes’ notes on the project:

What is the poem based on?

You should ask Jim ‘cause he wrote it but it’s based on the time he was in Edinburgh doing a course for his job and he ended up at this pub.

Are you happy with how it turned out?

Not quite. I don't know if I did Jim's poem and narration justice. I really love the news article and that Jim based his poem off of that. I find it interesting that there are people that study things like loneliness and luck. And that we poll people about how lonely they might be.

I think that's what drew me to this one. I didn't shoot enough footage and I didn't really have a game plan as to what I was shooting. There are some images that I like though and Jim's narration is really amazing.

Why do you have an American accent?

It's actually Canadian. Both Jim and I are not from Edinburgh. He's from Glasgow and I'm from Vancouver. I shot the video footage on my last week in Edinburgh before I came home. The footage is a bit of a downer - I hope not too much - but I was trying to stick to the words I had - both Jim's poem and the article.

Why did you pick this poem?

It was one of the first ones I read on the site and I related to it and knew I wanted to do that one. At the time, maybe I didn't relate as much to it, but when I first got to Edinburgh. I lived in Edinburgh for about 10 months and my first full month was in December. I didn't know anyone and it was my first Christmas away Canada so I think maybe I fit into that 33% of lonely Edinburghers. Vancouver is known for its depressing weather but those people obviously have never spent a winter in Edinburgh. Things turned out great by the time I left Edinburgh but the first few months could have been better for sure.

How did you work together?

Everything was done via email. I haven't spoken with Jim on the telephone or in person. I was going to go out to Glasgow to meet with him but I never made it. We sent a lot of emails back and forth - with ideas and edits and he would send me his narration. He seems like a great guy and he's written a few books so I'm going to track some of those down at some point and give them a read.

Where did you get the footage?

Almost all of the footage is real people (not actors), unaware that they are being filmed. The camera was hidden so people didn't know they were being filmed. The shot at the end is my friend James from Vancouver on top of Arthur's seat and there are a few shots with my brother walking past but it's dark and you can't see him really. But the majority of it is real people at night wandering around Edinburgh. I must have looked like a super creepy dude filming that couple kissing or the guy dropping his cigarette but those are all real people that walk around town at night.

Most of those shots were taken from the flat I was living in on the corner of the Royal Mile & Bridge St. I think a quarter of the film is footage from the window. The people I watched from that place were pretty amazing. A lot of drunkenness converges in that area.

All I can say is that I was very flattered to be contacted by Lewis and I’m pleased with the results. It just goes to show that you never know who your writing is going to connect with. In answer to the first question: just watch the film, it’s all explained in my commentary.

Since Edinburgh is a long way to ask any of you to travel to (besides you’d probably hate the place) I’ve decided to upload a copy here. It will also provide you all with a rare opportunity to hear me speak. As I’ve said before I don’t go to poetry readings so this will be something of a one off.

It works best when maximised. Click on the wee icon in between the volume bar and the vimeo logo.


If you want to see some more of Lewis’s work there are a number of films available at


Rachel Fox said...

Fun to hear your voice! Not how I imagined it...obviously.

Jim Murdoch said...

Rachel, it wasn't how I imagined it. It's been many years since I recorded my voice and this was a very strange experience. I'm used to it now but I'm not sure I'm pleased with it not that it matters because I'm stuck with it.

Kass said...

Your voice and the images by Lewis Bennett capture this poem perfectly. I also liked how the North Sea in its coldness and formidability reminded you of a person.

Your voice sounds so droll and wise.

Altman said...

What a great article. I would like to visit the cities you've mentioned. Maybe not in the winter months but in the summer.

The poem is full of strong imagery. I'm not a poet but liked the poem.


Jim Murdoch said...

So I’m cold and formidable and droll and wise. And here I thought I just sounded like a miserable git, Kass. You’re right through, Lewis did a good job finding images to compliment the poem.

And, Altman, Edinburgh is a very popular tourist destination. I personally think this makes it feel all the lonelier because you’re surrounded by people who are out of their element. I took my wife, who’s an American, through there the summer she first came over. She took an immediate dislike to the place and suspects that’s the reason. Glasgow, on the other hand, she took to right away.

Marion McCready said...

So much softer spoken than I was expecting! The video is great, I love how it ends with the dark, shadowy figure - works really well with your poem.

McGuire said...

'I’m cold and formidable and droll and wise'

I fucking love your voice, Jim. Such character in it, timbre, something like that. Natural, manly voice...something like that.

Amazing film and narration. Well done. My poem also got made into a film. I'll try and post it soon.

Some project Claire undertook. Gald she got it done. Good to get invovled in these things. I hope more turn up. Life needs it. We need it in our lives.

Speak soon.

Keep on reading and writing man.


Art Durkee said...

Nice interview, and a terrific project. Would that more poets could get away from purely words and allow this sort of thing to become an option. I like what was done with your piece; I think it has turned out really good. As you know, I like this sort of multimedia presentation of poetry, and so I think this project is both interesting and largely successful. Well done!

It's funny, though, but maybe the poem is true: it seems like all the upbeat Scots I know seem to come from Glasgow. Must be something in the water. . . .

Scattercat said...


Jim Murdoch said...

That’s me, Sorlil, a great big softie. My cover’s blown. The image at the end was inspired though. At first I thought it was a statue. Rather surprised to find it was actually a person but it’s the perfect ending.

‘Manly’? Okay, McGuire, I can live with that. Maybe you could write a bit on your blog about your trip to Edinburgh. And now I’m keen to see your video.

I was very pleased that Lewis was open to suggestions, Art. The only shame was the lack of time and once he got back to Canada he only had what he’d managed to shoot there to work with. This is the fourth version I’ve seen so we went through quite a bit to get it right.

And Scattercat - thank you.

Conda Douglas said...

That's a great video! I love poetry in this format. Your narration was not only clear but your voice added so much to the poetry. Well done, all!

Kass said...

Jim, In no way did I intend to describe YOU as cold and formidable. I didn't know you were talking about yourself in The North Sea.

Elisabeth said...

As you know this is not my first time watching the video, Jim, and this time I enjoyed it even more than the last in part because you told me how to maximise the screen.

For some reason this time the rain hit me and the sight of those birds flying at night. Birds rarely fly at night, as far as I know.

I found the film more haunting this time and I'm with others about the sound of your voice.

At first hearing, it jumped out at me because I had an unconscious preconception of how it might sound, and then when I heard it, I was surprised.

Now your voice seems familiar to me and therefore more pleasurable in the way that familiar sounds, positive familiar sounds that is, can be comforting, and pleasurable.

I'm impressed by the cinematography, too.

It all works well, I think - the sound of your voice, the choice of images and photography, your wonderful voice over explaining the piece and finally your poem.

Thanks, Jim.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks, Conda. That was as you can well imagine not my first attempt at the narration. I actually went through and closed up some of the pauses and got rid of the lip smacks and deep breaths. For a first go it’s okay. I have no idea if I’ll ever do another one. I’m still not that crazy about my voice.

Actually, Kass, I do quite a good ‘formidable’ when I put my mind to it but I’m not so good at ‘cold’; the best I can do is ‘indifferent’ and even that takes work because I find everything interesting even things I’m not interested in. You never know there might be a poem lurking around in there.

And, Elisabeth, I’m not actually sure this is what the organisers were looking for, a poem with commentary, but that’s what we ended up with. I wrote it more to give Lewis background on the piece but that’s what we ended up using. It was actually quite a bit longer but we had to cut a chunk because of time constraints. If I wrote longer poems I might be more inclined to try this again but I don’t and very few have much of a narrative. But it was fun to do, different.

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